Recognizing blue collar skills

It is timely that the government is drafting a Technical and Vocational Education and Training blueprint that will guide and influence reforms in the sector for the next 15 years. Despite the first vocational training course becoming available by 1965, and major reforms taking place since the early 2000s, issues with the quality of those graduating out of the institutes persist, and a blue collar job remains unappealing to our youth.

Besides the low social status, a low economic relevance is also associated with a blue collar job in Bhutan. This is surprising given the number of expatriate workers you see us depending on to fix everything from a leaking pipe to constructing a massive hydropower dam.

The demand is there and so is the money. For instance, an expatriate worker can earn up to Nu 50,000 just to scrape off the old paint and add a new coat for a single story bungalow in Thimphu. Fixing a tap can cost up to Nu 1,000. The end quality is usually nothing exceptional.

By having our training institutes produce graduates who focus not just on the basic or required skills but also on that extra care for quality and details, perhaps, demand for local labour may increase and subsequently, their rates as well.

If Bhutanese youth can provide better quality end work than expatriates, charge and earn higher, then perhaps, this stigma about getting your hands dirty can be overcome, similar to how the sector is viewed in the West. When the pay is right, as evident from stories coming back from Australia and the US, Bhutanese are willing to work so called dirty jobs from sweeping streets to laying bricks.

The same should apply here, especially with the thousands of youth who enter the job market every year. The scenario is changing, choosing to remain unemployed rather than take up a blue collar job may not be an option in a few years, unless of course, you were born with a silver spoon.

The blue print must ensure our training institutes produce above average quality. Perhaps, one of the ways to ensure this is to introduce and allow youth to experiment with vocational occupations early on in the formal education system. At a higher standard or class, the youth can be given the option to digress away from pursuing a traditional education and opt for a vocational occupation they may have discovered a passion for during their experimentation.

But it is important that youth who choose to opt for a vocational stream are not written off from further education if they desire to pursue it. A vocational stream should hold equal weight to a traditional stream. There should not be a problem in ensuring this equal weight as our policy makers who hold white collar jobs, continue to assure the youth that a blue collar job is equally  respectable.

1 reply
  1. irfan
    irfan says:

    The bottom of a classroom in our education system brings out difficulties in challenges as well as opportunities when we talk employment. If it’s class X or XII, we expect the bottom to take up low paid non-technical jobs or opt for vocational and technical education to develop some skills for a slightly better paid technical job. When we reach colleges and universities, we expect the bottom to take up a job where the educational certificates endorse the candidates as over qualified for the jobs in many occasions. So it’s always difficult to convince an university graduate to take up a so called ‘blue collar’ job. He usually settles for a low to medium paid ‘white collar’ job.

    But when it comes to competition in the job market in difficult times of the economy, the ‘blue collar’ market is highly challenging. The quality of finished work matters the most here. Both employers and clients are not ready for a compromise on quality. It’s difficult to question the credibility of a technical and vocational course; but the experienced blue collar employees usually agree that best of the learning happens in the real work environment when they learn it on job from other trained and experienced workers. The skills involved in a blue collar job are not always easy to learn and they do have a ‘observe-analyse-learn-practise-train-develop’ kind of a learning cycle to execute. So, there is a gap in terms of quality of the inputs and desired output of our technical and vocational education system.

    A ‘blue collar’ job can always be considered as some kind of a dirty job; but even they have their own requirements. Certain technical skills need to be grabbed and learnt at an early age and that’s where a kid learns it in the family from parents or the elders. It’s like a carpenter teaching his children carpentry skills or a painter passing the skills with a brush to his kids. But it shouldn’t be developed into any kind of social classification. One way forward can be through introduction of workstations and all round technical laboratories in schools where children can be introduced to learning of ‘blue collar’ skills as early as the ‘white collar’ skills. Our vocational and technical education needs to be integrated with an on field industry training programme.

    And we shouldn’t forget that entrepreneurial talents can always evolve from that bottom of any classrooms and even the top can execute things differently. One may be born with a silver spoon in his mouth; but it’s his ‘Blue Collar Enthusiasm’ that enables him to learn to take the spoon out and put it to use with his own hands.

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